Authors: Erin Saldin
TABLE OF CONTENTS
“Margaret called today.”
Dr. Hemler shifts in his chair. “And did you speak with her?”
I shake my head, and blow on my hands. His office is always so cold. “She left a message. Something about a question.” I act like I can't quite remember the message, as if it's not running through my head like the ticker at the bottom of a news screen. The pause between “It's” and “important.” “I'll try you again,” she'd said.
“What do you think she wants to ask you?” He picks up the remote control on his armrest and points it at the heating unit near the ceiling. There's a click, and then a soft whirring begins. “Will you call her back?”
“It's been over a year,” I say. “I don't know what she could want to talk to me about.”
He tilts his head. “Don't you?”
When I get home, I go straight to my room, shutting the door behind me, and sit down at my desk. I have that sickening, thick feeling in my stomach that I get whenever I have to do something terrible but necessary, like apologizing to Terri or admitting I forgot some important event â my dad's birthday, for instance. Or telling the truth.
I can't put this off any longer. I grab a piece of paper from the fresh ream by my elbow. I grab a pen, and place an extra one nearby. And then I stop, terrified. I know I need to tell my story â our story â but I don't know how. Because the truth, see â it's a messy thing. Sometimes the only way to clean it up is to hurtle through each decision you made, trying to find the one that changed everything. Maybe then you can start to fix it.
“Tell it straight,” Margaret commands from the back of my mind in that chain-smoking yogi voice of hers. “Leave nothing out.”
“Easy for you to say,” I want to tell her, but of course she's not here. None of them are. It's just me, here at the end, remembering how it all started and wondering if there was anything I could have done, even then, to save us.
BY THE TIME OUR BURGERS ARRIVED, I HAD HIS FOREHEAD
memorized. I mean, down to the tiniest mole up near his hairline, catty-corner from the arch of his right eyebrow. When he's stubbed his toe, or when he feels as though the rest of the world is speaking an obscure tribal language that he can't possibly understand, he has a way of knitting his brows together so that his forehead resembles a children's science museum exhibit. Ancient Geologic Forms. The Landscape of Jupiter. Your Brain on Drugs. He was doing it now. He was talking too, though I can't say I was paying much attention.
“Look at me, please,” he was saying (I think). “Would you please look at me when I talk.”
I decided I'd finished with him. Without turning my neck, I shifted my eyes from his forehead and started in on hers. I wanted my study to be comprehensive.
“Ridiculous,” he said. “A simple conversation.”
“John,” she said. “Let's not.” And then from below what I can only describe as a perfectly taut canvas of pale skin, eyebrows that never even jiggled with emotion, her voice chirped unconvincingly, “Oh, look! Our burgers!”
The waitress laid our platters in front of us. I felt around on my plate for my burger, touching my knife first. I wondered if this was what it had been like for Helen Keller. Except that she couldn't hear anything either. Lucky girl.
Because try as I might to shut out the sound, I could hear things. The slam of glasses on the wooden counter behind me. Silverware clattering against plates and teeth. A country singer crooning from the jukebox about giving a penny for my thoughts, a nickel for my heart. The waitress yelling over the crowd to a favorite customer: “What'd ya catch me this time, Derek? An eighty-pounder?”
It was getting harder and harder to continue my study. I wouldn't have minded seeing what an eighty-pounder looked like. What it even was. I took a bite of my burger. The bun tasted like straw.
“Lida,” my dad said. “Please.”
I allowed my gaze to travel back over and down. His eyes were round and a little moist, and I felt embarrassed for him. A grown man should not cry in public, especially not in a roadside diner in the middle of bear country. It's just unseemly. I blinked at him.
“How's your burger?” he asked hopefully.
I set it back in its red plastic basket and looked over at my stepmother. If she had been glaring at me before, she did a great job of covering it with an indulgent smile.
“Flat,” I said. “Boring. Kind of depressed.”
“Your burger is depressed.” She was almost glaring again. “Your burger has feelings.” She paused. “Really. Mine's just a burger.”
There were virtually seismic shifts occurring on my dad's forehead. He put his hand on her arm and looked from her to me and back again.
“I don't want to leave things this way,” he said. He looked straight at me. “Lida, you have the rest of the year to hate us on your own time. Let it be for just this once.” Then he turned and whispered something in my stepmother's ear, and she drew her shoulders back a little before whispering something in response. Meaning, she didn't agree with whatever he'd said. Meaning, he wasn't letting her off the hook either.
I looked around the restaurant. We were in Hindman, Idaho. Population: 148. Stoplights: 0. Diners named after the town: 1. Percentage of the town population that appeared to be in said diner on this nondescript June afternoon: 100. From what I could tell, percentage of the town who were men: about 99. Every table in the wood-paneled room was full. A chandelier made out of antlers hung over the bar, where big men crouched on stools like Ping-Pong balls on toothpicks. One guy in a camo jacket towered over the jukebox in the corner, rattling quarters around in his football-sized fist. Not the sort of place to start a fight, not without knowing who your friends are first.
“Did you hear what I said?” My dad tapped the table with one finger. “Lida, are you listening to me?”
“Absolutely,” I said, turning back to the table and smiling at both of their foreheads. If my dad wanted to end things on a false note, that was fine with me. As long as it meant
had to play along too. “So,” I said, picking up my burger again and giving it another go. “What do the two of you have planned for the next few months? Cooking classes? Couples' yoga?” Then I laughed, a short little trill that I had been practicing in the bathroom at home. Terri looked sharply at me and opened her mouth, but I soldiered on. This time I tried for sincerity. “No, I mean, really. Got any plans?”
My dad shifted in his seat. “I doubt there will be time for much besides the usual,” he said. “The department is understaffed again this year, and I've agreed to pick up another class.”
“Huh,” I said. “Well, that's a surprise.”
My dad is a professor of applied economics at Idaho State College, a Podunk institution in Bruno, a Podunk town in a Podunk state. He's always agreeing to pick up another class, and he always complains about it. Not that he'd know what to do with himself if he had any spare time. He'd probably just start worrying about me full-time, instead of the kind of part-time instructorship of worry that he's allotted for me so far. And nobody wants that to happen.
He looked back over at Terri, who gave him a little smile as if to say,
Well, why not?
“We might find time to take a little vacation,” he added, and shrugged apologetically. Now it was his turn to avoid eye contact. “Terri has â
â always wanted to visit New York. Might be nice. Central Park in the autumn.”
Don't care, don't care, don't care.
“You'll have to send me a postcard.” I paused. “If I can even get mail up there.”
“Lida, don't be dramatic,” said Terri. “I'm sure you can receive mail. I'm sure you'll have everything you need at the school. It's not like it's the military or anything.” She laughed weakly.
My dad leaned forward. “Well,” he said hesitantly, “of course you can get letters from home. I think you can even write and send your own, once the subject matter has been approved. But there's no phone use, and no Internet. It's supposed to be rugged,” he added, catching a glimpse of my face. “I thought we talked about this, Bun.”
We had. We'd talked about it all spring. We'd talked about it when I stayed home from school. We'd talked about it on the weekends, when I was grounded and sitting with my back against my bedroom door, listening to the drone of his voice on the other side. We'd talked about it in my dad's last-ditch effort at family counseling, which was as useless as ever. And we'd talked about it after I'd gotten back from the hospital. We'd talked about it a lot then. Problem was, only my dad talked. I listened. And we all know how brilliant my listening skills were.